· 2 min read · Features

Six ethical decision-making pitfalls to avoid


Despite the best intentions, leaders can make decisions that have harmful and long-lasting consequences

It’s all too easy for leaders to make the wrong decision. Whether it’s failing to respond to claims of misconduct or not making time to fully investigate reports of issues such as sexual abuse, leaders’ ethical decision-making is tested daily. While there are no easy solutions there are six pitfalls leaders should avoid to ensure they don’t make decisions that will come back and bite.

Pitfall 1: Disregarding low probability events

It’s all too tempting as a leader to discount the outcomes of situations you think have a low probability of ever occurring or, if they do, you think are unlikely to affect a lot of people.

Leaders linked to the Jimmy Savile scandal are an example of this pitfall. Derek Chinnery, controller of Radio 1 between 1978 and 1985, recalled confronting Savile about rumours circulating. At the time there was no reason for Chinnery to disbelieve what Savile said, and he felt that the rumours were in some sense unlikely to be true.

To avoid falling into this trap managers should think about the likelihood of an event as well as its potential impact, taking measures to collect evidence about all the potential consequences so you can fully review and reconsider your decision and subsequent actions.

Pitfall 2: Oversimplifying the issue

It is human nature when faced with a complex decision to seek to simplify it, to somehow reframe the problem into one that we recognise and feel we can comfortably solve. However, oversimplifying an issue could cause you to miss important information or fail to consider all the potential consequences.

One way to avoid this is to encourage a healthy culture of challenge in which difficult questions can be asked.

Pitfall 3: A focus on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’

Goal-setting is a common feature of organisational life but can have unintended repercussions. Setting specific and challenging goals can improve performance but they can also narrow the focus and attention of employees, blinding them to important issues such as how the goal is attained.

Leaders need to make sure that the cost of cheating to achieve a goal is far greater than the benefit, and establish multiple safeguards to avoid unethical behaviour.

Pitfall 4: The thin end of the wedge

People are less likely to notice unethical behaviour if it develops gradually.

Regarding the scandal at the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust, it is clear that the culture of neglect in the hospital did not develop overnight. Managers did not take action in response to misconduct and it continued to the point that a large number of patients were subjected to unacceptable risks of harm over a period of years.

Leaders need to be alert and address even minor ethical transgressions in their organisations. Consider the unintended consequences of ignoring unethical behaviour, and think how best to communicate this position to your followers and within company culture.

Pitfall 5: Overvaluing outcome

People are more likely to ignore an unethical decision if it results in a 'good' outcome; the News International phone hacking scandal could be an example of this.

Individuals should not be rewarded based solely on the outcome of their activities, but also the means used to achieve the outcome and how consistent this is with organisational values. Is it acceptable that your employees are adopting unethical practices to get the job done?

Pitfall 6: The power of language

Language is a powerful leadership tool and the language you use as a leader defines your followers’ understanding and response to your words. When it comes to ethical leadership leaders also have a responsibility to seek clarity from those around them about the language they use.

The influence that language can have on decision-making is illustrated by the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. Staff used coded language such as ‘horsing around’ to report the assault to their leaders, who relied on the harmless interpretation of this phrase as the basis for decision-making about the crime.

When it comes to ethical leadership leaders are responsible for seeking clarity. They must ask the difficult questions and understand that it involves handling tough conversations by letting employees speak in their own way.

Meysam Poorkavoos is a researcher at Roffey Park Institute